What Becomes of High School Valedictorians?

alex atkins bookshelf educationMost every high school student dreams of being the valedictorian of his or her class. To the adolescent mind, it is the equivalent on winning the Oscar and the obligatory acceptance speech (OMG! the whole world is watching!) The long held assumption is that the valedictorian represents the best of the best students, speaking on behalf of the entire graduating class. The valedictorian is supposed to dazzle the audiences with his or her brilliance, insights, and aspirations for the future. What will members of the class accomplish? How will they make an impact on the world? But if you have sat on those uncomfortable metal chairs, under the hot sun, and listened to enough of these speeches, have you ever wondered what really became of those eloquent valedictorian so full of hope and promise?

That question inspired Karen Arnold, an associate professor at the Lynch School of Education, Boston College, to find out. She tracked 81 high school valedictorians from graduation and beyond to see what they accomplished. So what did she learn? Arnold found that although valedictorians were academically successful, they did not blaze any new trails to change or run the world. The majority of valedictorians went to college (95%), maintained a respectable GPA in college (average 3.6), and 60% went on to graduate school, and then they settle into rather ordinary, comfortable jobs. Arnold elaborates: “Even though most are strong occupational achievers, the great majority of former high school valedictorians do not appear headed for the very top of adult achievement arenas… Valedictorians aren’t likely to be the future’s visionaries… they typically settle into the system instead of shaking it up.” [emphasis added] So what is the explanation for this rather counterintuitive situation?

Arnold believes there are two reasons why valedictorians don’t become true innovators or disruptors in the real world. First, valedictorians are not necessarily smart, but they are hard-working, pragmatic, and have a higher tendency to conform. Think of the opposite of Herman Melville’s famous scrivener, Bartleby. Arnold adds “Essentially, [schools] are rewarding conformity and the willingness to go along with the system.” Not surprisingly, the subjects in the studies considered themselves “careerists,” that is to say, more interested in earning good grades rather than actually learning. Warning — tiger parents may not want to read beyond this point. It is also important to note that academic grades do not necessarily reflect intelligence, but rather self-discipline, conscientiousness, and compliance with rules. Shawn Achor, a professor of psychology at Harvard and an expert on positive psychology, demonstrated that college grades do not predict success after college any better than the roll of the dice. Measuring income as a metric for success, he found that over 700 millionaires in America only achieved an average college GPA of 2.9. Who says C+ work doesn’t get rewarded? Try justifying that to tiger parents when they are spending a quarter of a million dollars on your undergrad education! Incidentally, Achor believes that the conventional wisdom (“work hard to be successful, and when you are successful, you will find happiness”) is completely wrong — happiness fuels success, not the other way around.

The second reason that most valedictorians don’t rise to the top of the real world, is that they are generalists — they are not necessarily passionate or experts about one specific topic. Arnold elaborates: “They’re extremely well rounded and successful, personally and professionally, but they’ve never been devoted to a single area in which they put all their passion. That is not usually a recipe for eminence.” Being a generalist has its rewards, of course; however it does not necessarily lead to expertise — something that is highly rewarded in the real world — and the exact opposite of what is rewarded in high school.

Eric Barker, author of Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success is (Mostly Wrong) concludes that conformists and generalists cannot live up to the assumed lofty expectations of a valedictorian. In short, the belief that the valedictorian will be the most successful person of his class is simply a myth. In fact, most likely, the valedictorian will struggle without the rules and structure of the academe. Barker writes: “School has clear rules. Life often doesn’t. When there’s no clear path to follow, academic high achievers break down… Following the rules doesn’t create success; it just eliminates extremes — both good and bad. While this is usually good and all but eliminates downside risk, it also frequently eliminates earthshaking accomplishments. It’s like putting a governor on your engine that stops the car from going over fifty-five; you’re far less likely to get into a lethal crash, but you won’t be setting any land speed records either.”

So if you are in high school and were not selected to be a valedictorian, take a deep breath, relax. Everything will be fine. Understand that a valedictorian is not a euphemism for “most likely to succeed” but rather “most likely to conform and settle into a quiet life.” And it doesn’t hurt to have the song “Little Boxes” by Malvina Reynolds (AKA as the theme song to Weeds on Showtime) playing in the background. Rejoice in your “nonvaledictorianess;” proclaim to yourself — and your parents — “be hopeful; the real success is yet to come… “

For further reading: Is Reading Essential for
Books Recommended by Successful People
50 Books That Will Change Your Life
The Books That Shaped America
The Books that Influence Us
What to Read Next

For further reading: Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success is (Mostly Wrong) by Eric Barker
The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work by Shawn Achor


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